Specific Support for Adolescents Struggling with Reading

Specific Support for Adolescents Struggling With Reading

Middle and high school students who struggle with reading need a very different type of support than educators might offer to their younger, early-elementary counterparts. While struggling readers in kindergarten through third grade are still learning new skills and being exposed to new information, adolescent students have likely been receiving reading instruction for years. Identifying what skills a struggling adolescent reader is missing—and, better yet, how to fill the gap—can be a difficult task. Literacy educators in the upper grades can often think of a student who clearly has difficulty with reading but whose needs aren’t immediately obvious.

Maybe it's a high schooler who, despite his best efforts, can't decode and spell accurately. Or perhaps it's a middle school student who completes every reading task flawlessly but still struggles to comprehend the meaning of the text. More generally, educators might notice that a student does just enough reading to blend in with her peers, but is below grade level in all her reading skills.  

For some students, struggles with reading may be a reflection of their home life. For example, a student may have motivation issues due to factors such as learned helplessness from an illness, or may fail to see how reading skills are useful in "real-world" jobs. Students living in poverty or frequently moving from one school district to another could have missed learning vital skills due to lack of exposure or consistency. For English Learners (ELs) students, the intricacies of the English language and cultural cues present additional roadblocks. Middle and high school educators know that reaching struggling adolescent readers presents a wide range of diverse challenges.  

To address the unique issues that affect adolescent literacy, we need to provide focused support in key areas. Many literacy educators are familiar with the five building blocks of literacy:  

  • Phonemic awareness

  • Phonics

  • Fluency

  • Vocabulary

  • Comprehension

Since these building blocks were first described in a 2000 report by the National Reading Panel, educators have used them to guide reading instruction for new and struggling readers. However, are these five components of literacy really the most effective framework for struggling adolescent readers?  

The original building blocks were designed for young children who were beginning to read and primarily needed exposure to literacy. For older students who have already had years of exposure to print and spoken word and may even be fluent in another language, different factors need to be considered. In Effective Instruction For Adolescent Readers: A Practice Brief, the Center on Instruction (COI) recommends modifying the five building blocks of literacy only slightly. The five essential areas recommended by the COI for adolescents readers are:

  • Word study

  • Fluency  

  • Vocabulary

  • Comprehension

  • Motivation

Let’s take a look at each area to see how it meets the unique needs of struggling adolescent readers.


Word study

For some students, difficulties decoding new words are the chief obstacle to fluent, comprehensive reading. While early elementary students are frequently taught phonemic awareness and phonics skills to help them learn to decode, struggling adolescent readers need a different approach. In his article titled Give Struggling Readers the Specific Kinds of Support They Need, Dr. Rafael Heller wrote, "Phonemic awareness and phonics shouldn't really be defined as 'essential components' of literacy instruction in the upper grades. Nearly all adolescents, even those who read at a very low level, have at least some ability to sound out words." With this in mind, the COI recommended "word study," which helps adolescent readers learn the basic mechanics of languages. Dr. Heller suggested the following steps to help adolescent students get the most out of word study:

  • Show students how to break down multi-syllabic words

  • Practice commonly used words with unusual spelling patterns, such as "were," "where," "have," "give," and "been"

  • Teach root words, prefixes, and suffixes

  • Keep word study activities short (5 to 10 minutes) to maximize focus

  • Stay relevant to course content and current topics

  • Make it fun to show that writing and speaking are enjoyable!


Fluency is the ability to read material accurately, quickly, and expressively. For EL students, individuals who have learning disorders, and learners who have difficulty comprehending the meaning behind a text, reading with fluency can be a major stumbling block. To help students practice reading aloud, literacy educators might use student activities such as the ones listed here by the Texas Education Agency. While any activity that provides appropriate modeling and sufficient practice can help struggling readers develop their reading fluency, these strategies are most likely to benefit adolescent struggling readers:

  • Listen to an adult read a text aloud to model fluent reading

  • Read along with a tape recording or software that reads text aloud

  • Use partner reading to allow students to hear a more fluent peer model  

  • Ask students to develop scripts from a text and put on a performance with their peers


Middle and high school students who struggle to learn new vocabulary are at a disadvantage throughout the school day. Since adolescent students take individual classes in the sciences, math, social studies, and the arts, the inability to pick up the academic language used in each subject can affect their performance in every class, not just language arts. ELLs, students with learning disabilities, and other adolescent learners who have difficulty picking up new vocabulary will particularly identify with these struggles.  

Fortunately, with the help of educational technology, it’s easier than ever to support struggling adolescent readers across the curriculum. New ed tech allows students multiple options for learning new vocabulary, including the following technological supports suggested by the National Center for Technology Innovation and Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd) in its article, Adolescent Literacy: What’s Technology Got To Do With It?:

  • Talk-to-text software

  • Interactive online encyclopedias, thesauruses, and dictionaries

  • How-to videos

  • Illustrated diagrams and guides

  • Animated illustrations


Adolescent readers who understand the mechanics of the language but fail to understand context or meaning have an additional hurdle in achieving grade-level reading skills. It can be especially discouraging for students to follow all the "rules" of reading and still not grasp the meaning behind the text.

In the RAND Reading for Understanding report, researchers emphasized that reading comprehension does not occur in a vacuum. The process of taking in new information, relating it back to prior knowledge, and constructing a new understanding are not isolated reading skills. Rather, there is a relationship between reading and a larger social and cultural context. To support reading comprehension, educators must think about all three elements, defined by the researchers as: "The reader who is doing the comprehending, the text that is being comprehended, [and] the activity in which comprehension is a part." Here are some suggestions for supporting each element of reading comprehension:


  • Recognize the range of skills that a reader uses when reading a text, including cognitive skills, individual motivation, and background knowledge of the subject matter

  • Give students choices in selecting readings or activities to help them stay engaged and motivated

  • Provide direct instruction on metacognitive skills, such as self-regulation and active reading

  • Emphasize both literal understanding of the text's subject matter and personal understanding of the text's structure, meaning, and relevance


  • Help students review current domain knowledge before reading a new text

  • Annotate complex reading material with helpful references, such as hyperlinks or related reading

  • Consider multiple factors when choosing a text, such as vocabulary load, genre, structure, and course-specific content

  • Don't be afraid to choose challenging tasks or texts—instead, help students develop the skills and the confidence they need to rise to the challenge


  • Ask students to share what they learned from reading the text

  • Encourage hands-on activities that allow students to apply the knowledge they've learned from the text

  • Provide opportunities for students to engage with each other over the reading

  • Allow collaboration to increase motivation and peer support



Staying motivated to work on reading—particularly when peers seem to have mastered these skills already—can be very difficult for struggling adolescent readers. Additionally, motivating adolescent students is markedly different than motivating younger, elementary-age students. Rather than working strictly for rewards such as good grades or prizes, adolescent students are developing their sense of self and learning to persevere. In the Emotional Leadership article Motivating Young Adolescents, author Rick Wormeli explains the importance of helping middle and high school students invest themselves in the learning process. He recommends six effective strategies to educators:

  • Recognize that motivation comes from within the student

  • Empathize with the student to build a trusting student-teacher relationship

  • Keep lessons and feedback appropriate to the student's developmental stage

  • Provide specific feedback, praising well-done work and showing the student how to correct mistakes

  • Cultivate expertise on how the mind learns and help the student develop executive functioning

  • Give background information that ignites student curiosity


In order to reach middle and high school students who struggle with reading, educators must first acknowledge each student's individual needs. While some struggling adolescent readers have difficulty with the mechanics of reading, others need more support in developing their comprehension skills. Some need help learning content-specific vocabulary, while others are working on developing their fluency. Regardless of the specifics, nearly all struggling adolescent readers need their literacy educators to help them develop self-motivation and perseverance in developing their reading skills. By working with students to address their unique needs, educators can provide individualized support for struggling adolescent readers, helping them develop literacy skills they'll use for a lifetime.

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